Questions of status and class are a major preoccupation of Jane Austen’s characters, and of the novels themselves. Professor John Mullan considers both the importance of social status and its satirical potential.
expected her readers to be sensitive to questions of social status, but she remorselessly satirised characters who were obsessed with fine social distinctions. There is certainly no association in her novels between high rank and any great virtue or ability. Aristocrats are at best buffoons, at worst paragons of arrogance. The most famous case is probably Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice
, a woman with whom no one before Elizabeth Bennet has ever disagreed. But think also of the amiably stupid Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility
, the cold and deluded Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park
, or the vain spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion
. All three men are baronets, the lowest rank of hereditary title.
‘Rank is rank,’ Mr Elliot tells Anne in Persuasion, explaining why the company of her father’s cousin, the vapid Lady Dalrymple, and her awkward daughter is to be desired (ch. 16). ‘Rank’ is a word most often used of those with titles, and a respect for rank is subject to particularly withering satire in Persuasion. Lady Russell respects Sir Walter Elliot because he has an hereditary title while she is only the widow of a knight. Mary Musgrove carelessly and constantly offends her in-laws by her insistence on her precedence on social occasions because she is the daughter of a baronet while they are mere country gentry.
Sir Walter Elliot’s reading of the Debrett’s Baronetage
alerts us to his anxious attention to status. The guidebook had been made necessary by the large number of ‘new’ baronetcies created in the late 18th century. Sir Walter reassures himself that his own title dates from the 17th century. Even among this group of minor aristocrats there is a pecking order. It is unconsciously mocked by a waiter in the inn in Lyme Regis who tells Mary Musgrove that Mr Elliot’s servant ‘said his master was a very rich gentleman, and would be a baronight some day’ (ch. 12).
The chosen and the best
Austen’s satire is most subtle in Emma
, where it is the heroine herself who is the greatest snob. Emma begins the novel confident that she knows who are ‘the chosen and the best’ in Highbury (to be treated as equals) who are the ‘second set’ (characters like Miss Bates, to be summoned at will to divert Emma’s father) and who are beyond the pale (like the farmer, Mr Robert Martin) (ch. 3). By the end of the novel she has been mortified and made to contemplate the real possibility that the gentlemanly Mr Knightley might want to marry Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of ‘somebody’. Mr Knightley himself enjoys the company of Mr Robert Martin, in whom he finds ‘true gentility’ (ch. 8). Luckily for Emma, Harriet will eventually marry Mr Robert Martin and Emma, taught a stern lesson, will think with ‘great pleasure’ of getting to know him (ch. 54).